Running in the Winter: Advice from a Boston Marathon Winner

By Amby Burfoot |

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Many experienced runners believe winter is a better season for running outdoors than summer. After all, there’s little any of us can do about July’s heat and humidity. You can only “dress down” so much to avoid dehydration and a rising body temperature – the leading causes of fatigue among endurance athletes. In winter, on the other hand, you can “dress up” to match the conditions.

Still, cold windy weather can prove intimidating. Here’s what you need to know to run safe and comfortable in winter.

Dress In Layers

This age-old advice remains true, but deserves reinterpretation. On most cold days, modern athletic fabrics enable runners to dress in just two layers, not the three of yesteryear. You need a wicking (or “breathable”) base layer next to your skin, and an additional wicking/insulating/ wind-blocking layer as outerwear. This outer fabric is often called a “soft shell.” You’ll need a third layer for extra protection in only the most frigid conditions.

Layering works because it allows you to avoid sweating by adding or subtracting a layer. That’s really the primary goal of winter running: prevent sweat buildup. You want to wear the smallest amount of clothing that will keep you warm without sweat.

Here’s why: Once you begin sweating, the moisture on your skin could cause you to chill rapidly if the temperature drops or the wind picks up. Evaporation is a cooling process – not what you want in an outdoor winter clime.

Layering for a Winter Run

Understand Wind Chill

Running on a still, windless, 20-degree day can be an absolute pleasure, particularly if there’s crisp snow underfoot. On the other hand, add a 20 mile-per-hour wind to the same run, and the feel and effect of the temperature is a piercing 4 degrees F.

A low wind chill makes you much more susceptible to hypothermia and frostbite. The danger is magnified many times if you have wet skin from sweating, as just mentioned above.

To prevent sweat buildup, wear a wool/acrylic hat or hoodie, and select an outer layer with a full zipper. These will allow you to adjust your body temperature as the temperature and wind dictate. Unzip and remove your hat when the wind is at your back; zip up and replace your hoodie when you turn into a stiff, cold headwind.

Protect Your Extremities

The body parts most susceptible to cold damage are those farthest from your core and most exposed to the elements: fingers, ears, and a certain male-only organ just below the belt. Be sure these receive plenty of insulation on the coldest, windiest days.

Gloves are fine for moderate cold, but your hands will be happiest if you wear mittens on especially bitter days when frostbite is a threat. Depending on the conditions you face, you may need mittens that include a wind-block, like nylon.

Be sure to have several wool or acrylic caps you can pull on, and over your ears, before a cold-weather run. A jacket with a warm hood also works great, protecting the back of the neck and the head. Even on moderate winter days, run with earmuffs or other ear cover. In extreme weather, consider a balaclava for maximal head and ear warmth.

Men are advised to wear protective underwear on the coldest, windiest days. The underwear should include a wind-block layer and extra insulation.

Make Yourself Visible

The short daylight hours of winter are more challenging than the cold weather. Almost all runners will have to do some training in morning or evening darkness when they’ll be sharing the road with cars and trucks. To be safe on dark roads, especially in the glinting light of dawn and dusk, you must make it easy for drivers to spot you.

A few years ago, a reflective strip, vest, or jacket seemed sufficient. However, more is better. Today you can choose from a variety of headlamps and LED lights that enhance your visibility on the roads. Lights attached to your arms, legs or shoes are particularly effective, as drivers will readily notice a moving, blinking source of light.

Make Yourself Visable While Running in the Winter

To maximize your own vision in bright sun and snow, be sure to wear 100 percent UV protective sunglasses. These can be particularly important at high altitudes, like ski resorts, which feature an intense sun glare.

Befriend a Treadmill

Treadmills used to be clunky, jerky, ugly pieces of equipment that couldn’t offer the steady, rhythmic “ride” all runners desire. As a result, almost no one ran on treadmills. No longer. Modern treadmills are a world apart from their ancestors, making them a favorite purchase for home use, especially when there are several runners in the family.

In health clubs, even long rows of treadmills may not be sufficient to meet the demand during peak hours. That’s because treadmills have become smooth, enjoyable, and programmable. They offer rapid speed and elevation changes, just like running outdoors, and provide a growing array of digital enhancements.

Best of all, treadmills keep you away from the cold and dark while providing a 99.9 percent real-world running simulation. While physicists and purists may argue about the final 0.1 percent, there’s no practical difference between outdoor road-running and indoor treadmill running. Beginning joggers and Olympians alike appreciate the benefits. For runners with child-care and other domestic responsibilities – and who doesn’t fall into this group? – a home treadmill also gives you the flexibility to hop on and off as needed to check on the kids, the laundry, and the dinner in the oven.

Use a Treadmill in the Winter for Supplement Training

Adjust Your Training

Winter isn’t the season to work on your mile or 5-K time. Save the speed training and short races for summer when you can run light and free on grass or tracks. Conversely, winter is often the better season to build your endurance for prime half-marathon and marathon racing. Many runners find it easier to train for the Boston Marathon (mid-April) than they do for fall marathons that require building mileage during the hot summer months.

The long runs so crucial to marathon success are much more comfortable in cold weather than hot. To build leg turnover and power in winter, run hill repeats, a highly effective alternative form of speed and pace work. Pick a hill that’s 100 to 400 meters long and, over a number of weeks, increase from three repeats to six – ten repeats. Between hard efforts, walk or jog slowly to the bottom of the hill.

Winter is the perfect season to refocus on strength training in the gym. It’s also a great time to do more cross-training: swimming, elliptical workouts, indoor rowing, and indoor bicycling.

Breathe Easy

As many as 15 percent of adults may encounter exercise-induced asthma (EIA) when they run. This occurs because they process much more oxygen while exercising. Cold, dry air increases the likelihood of EIA.

To limit breathing issues, begin your workout with an indoor warmup. You could ride an exercise bike, do calisthenics, or even jog in place for a few minutes. Once outside, cover your nose and mouth with a wool-type mask to increase the temperature and moisture of the air you’re breathing. If necessary, use an over-the-counter bronchodilator 15 minutes before beginning your run. (Note: Though cold air can aggravate your breathing, it will not damage throat or lung tissue unless you face truly Arctic conditions.)

Find a Training Partner

Winter’s biggest challenge isn’t environmental. It’s motivational. When you look out the window on a freezing windy day, it’s too easy to think: no thanks.

To overcome this nearly-universal obstacle, use your running network to find one or several reliable training partners who will meet you at a nearby street corner or a favorite training venue. When a running buddy awaits, you won’t skip the workout.

Amby Burfoot is a marathon enthusiast. Winning the 1968 Boston Marathon and completing the Manchester Thanksgiving Day Road Race 51 years in a row! He is currently editor at large for Runner's World magazine.

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